Friars Celebrate St. Stephen Parish History With Mass of Thanksgiving

Jocelyn Thomas In the Headlines


From left to right: Michael Harlan, Msgr. Thomas Leonard, Emeric Szlezak, Angelo Gambatese, Kevin Mullen, Neil O’Connell and Christopher Keenan at the Mass of Thanksgiving at St. Stephen of Hungary Church. (Photo courtesy of Patrick Brophy)

NEW YORK — Several hundred people gathered at St. Stephen of Hungary Church last week to recognize the parish and the Franciscans’ eight decades of service there. Provincial Minister Kevin Mullen, OFM, concelebrated a special Mass on Dec. 7 with Msgr. Thomas Leonard, administrator since last summer, providing a sense of healing and closure to a community that has been adjusting to a series of unsettling transitions.

In January, the Province made known its decision to return the care of St. Stephen Parish to the Archdiocese of New York, due to the declining number of available friars and resources. On Nov. 2, the Archdiocese of New York announced that St. Stephen’s is one of 112 parishes that will be merged to create 55 new parishes, a response to the archdiocese’s changing demographics. Effective Aug. 1, 2015, St. Stephen’s will close and the parish will join with others on Manhattan’s Upper East Side.

These changes generated the idea for a special Mass of Thanksgiving for the friars’ service, as well as the service of all of the parishioners who have been part of the St. Stephen’s community since the church was founded in 1902.

Several friars with connections to the parish attended. Those who concelebrated included Angelo Gambatese, OFM, pastor from 2002 to 2014 and guardian for many of those years, Christopher Keenan, OFM, who lived at the friary and helped at the parish from 2009 to 2011, Neil O’Connell, OFM, guardian and pastor from 1993 to 2002, and Emeric Szlezak, OFM, assistant and vicar from 1945 to 1986. Provincial Secretary Michael Harlan, OFM, who lived at St. Stephen Friary from 2005 to 2007, also participated in the festivities.

The Mass helped parishioners heal on several levels, said Rosalind Panepento, a member of the event’s organizing committee who has attended St. Stephen’s for more than 45 years. “The Mass exemplified the reason that many parishioners like the Franciscans. The liturgy conveyed the Franciscan spirit of hospitality and of reaching out.”

Kevin’s homily “was wonderful,” she added. “He mentioned healing many times during the liturgy.”

In his homily, Kevin shared memories of a summer he spent at St. Stephen’s while a formation student.

“He told a funny story about having to give his first homily at a Mass when parishioners were expecting to hear Fr. Leo Clifford, OFM, with ‘the Richard Burton voice,’ a well-known speaker and television personality serving the parish at the time,” noted parishioner Carolyn Croke, who also helped plan the Dec. 7 festivities.

“Fr. Kevin spoke in glowing terms of St. Stephen’s, its parishioners and its many ministries over the years,” she added. “He also introduced each friar concelebrating the Mass and his contributions to the parish during his ministry there. He concluded with a reflection on spirituality and its interconnectedness with community and hope.”

At the Mass, “there was an outpouring of love for Fr. Angelo, who had left the parish in December,” said Panepento. “The applause for Fr. Angelo was overwhelming.”

To recognize the parish’s heritage, the Mass was bilingual. A reading was proclaimed in Hungarian, and several songs were sung in Hungarian. Music was provided by the St. Stephen of Hungary Strings, led by Elaiza Leon, founder and director.

More than 300 people attended the Mass, said Croke, adding that “some said the number might have been about 330 — both English and Hungarian-speaking parishioners. It was standing-room only.”

During the reception in the large hall, several Parish Council members — Panepento, Marta Kelety, and Martin Milisits — expressed gratitude to the Franciscan friars for their more than 80 years of service to the parish.

“Not only did the event go well, but it provided much needed healing and closure,” noted Panepento.

Photos were taken by parishioner Patrick Brophy. More images from the Mass can be found on his website.

— Jocelyn Thomas is director of communications for Holy Name Province.